Developing Knowledge & Skill: Kostya's Blueprint to Chess Mastery
My ambitious intention today is to offer an overall philosophy on how one should study chess in order to maximize their progress.
I've decided to lay it all out, right here. Everything it takes (in my opinion from this point on) to reach your full chess potential. And of course I fully reserve the right to change my thoughts on anything and everything I write below as I gain more experience myself
Let's manage our expectations for a moment and make one thing clear -- the journey to chess mastery is a looooooong one. I cannot emphasize that enough (quite literally actually, did you notice the bolding, underlining, and italics?). There's a lot to learn and one must play thousands of chess games to gain enough experience to become a decent player. There are thousands of patterns and common themes that can only be learned through years of study and practice. There's also the practical aspect of chess, i.e. actually sitting down and competing against a fellow human, which includes things like time management, maintaing focus at the board, and handling your nerves.
So how does one become a chess master? To me the easiest approach to answering this question is to divide chess improvement into two parts: knowledge and skill.
Knowledge -- This applies to anything you can study and concretely learn, such as opening theory, middlegame principles/motifs, and theoretical endgames. Your memory and ability to retain information is most useful here.
Skill -- Simply put, your ability to actually play chess. This includes anything you do over the board that requires analytical thinking. This mainly includes calculation of all shapes sizes and forms. While knowledge is mostly learned through dedicated studying, skill should predominantly be improved through training (solving puzzles, solitaire chess, etc.). Generally speaking chess skill behaves like a muscle (a brain-muscle, if you will) in that hard work over time should amount to steady progress.
There are also aspects of chess that require a combination of both knowledge and skill, things like 'developing a plan', 'evaluation', and 'schematic thinking'. Naturally, you should work on improving all parts of your game side-by-side, so that you can become a multi-dimensional chess player and reach your full potential. Let's now break down each phase of the game:
Mostly knowledge. The first huge step here for every player to take is to learn the basic opening principles. Once you grasp the basic idea of developing your pieces, controlling the center, and castling, you're then ready to start learning specific opening theory. There's a lot to consider when deciding things like which openings to study, in what depth, and for how long. I definitely plan on shedding some light on this in the near future as studying the opening phase tends to be a serious issue for most developing players.
For a good chess player, knowledge and skill are more or less married when it comes to the middlegame. To oversimplify things, once a master reaches a middlegame he draws upon his past studies (knowledge) of similar positions (middlegames are usually grouped together based on the pawn structure and configuration of pieces) and tries to figure out out a general plan of what to do. He then calculates (skill) to find the best move or series of moves in order to execute his desired plan most effectively. Because there's so much variety when it comes to middlegames, they should take up the majority of your time spent studying.
Once again both knowledge and skill come into play here. In many endgames good moves can be found based on following endgame principles, but the ability to calculate is crucial as well. When it comes to studying endgames, this can be divided into two parts: theoretical endgames and practical endgame play. I'll gladly cover both topics in detail (as in how to study them and how much time to spend) in future posts.
All skill! To break it down even further, the ability to calculate can also be divided into two seperate skills: analysis and visualization. For our purposes when I say analysis or "one's ability to analyze" I am referring to the skill of searching for and finding good moves, otherwise known as finding candidate moves. This includes both 'tactical' and 'positional' motifs, calculation is not just for spotting combinations! Visualization can be defined as the skill of visualizing the board several moves ahead and being able to see the position clearly in your mind. Of course evaluation also plays a huge role here (it's not very useful to be able to see 20 moves ahead if you can't make sense of what's going on), but visualization is a vital skill for any competitive chess player nevertheless.
Odds and Ends
Like many others I also strongly believe that one must continually reflect on their own games and learn from their mistakes if they wish to improve at a solid pace. Sorry, but the countless number of hours you spend on bullet aren't going to get you very far if (!) you're not learning from your errors and trying to improve for the next game. That said, if all you did was play bullet but you also went over your games and continued to study chess you would eventually become an extremely strong bullet player, so there's that!
This concludes my first post, which hopefully gave you a rough understanding of just how many aspects to consider when it comes to chess improvement. I have deliberately tried to simplify things as much as possible, and will break down each topic further in my future posts. As always please leave your questions/criticisms/suggestions/gripes/jokes in the comments section below!